I've been a high school janitor for a few months, and I can't help but feel like there's a sitcom in it somewhere. Oh, sure, there have been janitors as characters on sitcoms (that guy on Scrubs, for example), but surely there are endless comedic situations that could arise from, say, scraping gum off of a locker room floor, or sweeping up hot Cheetos ad nauseum. Then again, maybe not. It's not so much funny as mundane. Maybe I won't submit my script to NBC and Netflix after all.
I've done janitorial work before, and nothing makes you appreciate the people who clean up after everyone else like being one of those people. If they (we) didn't take out your trash, sweep your floors, clean your toilets, all that stuff would be dirty. You're welcome. Glad to be of service, especially when there's a paycheck at the end of it. I'll be honest, though: it grates on me the tiniest bit that I'm continually cleaning up messes that I didn't make.
Cleaning up is a big deal. We talk a lot about garbage in America, after all: how much of it we produce, how we recycle some of it, where it all ends up. When I was a kid, we used to go to the county dump. The dump, if you've never been to one, is really an impressive feat of engineering in a way. It's a huge hole in the ground, but the hole also moves because once you fill a hole up, you need a new one. You would drive your vehicle almost to the edge of the hole, and, yes, dump all your stuff down in it. I was three or four the first time I saw it. It almost seemed like a treasure finding excursion, and less like a trash heap. Growing up with only flat land as far as the eye could see, any change in topography made you take note.
One time at the dump, my mother saw a man throwing out a cash register. It was an antique of sorts, like something you might have seen in Little House on the Prairie at Oleson's Mercantile, with big metal buttons that made metal plates arise behind glass that would reveal the price. She asked if she could have it for me. I loved stuff like this, simple machines that weren't automatic. I'm still intrigued by how those mechanisms function. I remember distinctly seeing the cash register on the side of the man's truck, precariously balanced on the edge, wondering if it would fall into the abyss of refuse below. Luckily, he decided to give it to us, and although it seems to have gotten lost over time, for a while it was my favorite toy. It was noisy as all get out as well, which I'm sure my parents appreciated.
As the saying goes, one's man trash is another man's treasure. I'm sure there is some psychological connection between that day at the dump, and my love for garage sales and thrift stores. On occasion, I have found something I wanted in the trash set out for the garbage truck. Lately, I've been wondering what we should be doing with our collective cultural trash. Specifically, I have thought quite a bit about how we discard people who have wronged our social conscience in ways that assail our deepest sense of right and wrong. In short, what do we do with people who have done something bad enough to want to kick them out of the humanity club?
When I worked in student ministry, I taught at length about how grace and forgiveness accomplishes what wars, laws and power cannot. I believe this is true, absolutely. That new-ish dictum (that sounds old), "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind", I suppose is true. Someone has to be the bigger person when there has been wrongdoing, or we'll just keep on warring, firing salvos (or bullets) until the carnage becomes too much or we're simply out of resources. So, our goal should always be changed hearts and minds, and you don't really do that by having power over someone. You lead by example, by showing how efficacious and fulfilling walking a path of love and compassion can be. Again, I believe that to be true.
And so when have these national dialogues on topics like race or sexual abuse, it gets me wondering how we can bring the idea of grace into those conversations. We really desire to write people off when they've done something egregious. But those people still exist, they still live, just like their victims. I can't help but think that anyone who is penitent of hurtful behaviors still has value, and that we shouldn't be done with them. I also feel that way about people who aren't penitent, although admittedly that is a far more difficult course to navigate. Either way, the ideal, I believe, is that no one is too far from turning it around.
We love stories about people who have, in fact, done that very thing. Sarah Silverman featured a former Westboro Baptist member (and relative of pastor Fred Phelps) on her show, I Love You, America. And while it is wonderful that this person has made the shift from being so hate-filled, to me it begs the question: are we willing to give that opportunity of acceptance to other people who have engaged in sexual assault or abuse? Who have spewed racist diatribes? Right now, in this climate, I don't think we are. Are we willing to do this wonderful, yet extremely difficult thing that Jesus said: "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you." Do I feel for these victims? Absolutely. We need to do everything we can to stop evil acts of all kinds. But I truly believe that part of how you accomplish that is grace and forgiveness. And as much as we must call out the harm and injury caused (and we should without equivocation), we must also figure out how to navigate restitution and resolution. Grace offers a kind of resolution that punishment never will.
Instead, we want to put these people in the dump, right? I mean, that's what we truly desire in our heart of hearts. And I get it. I do, too. We've all been hurt in some way. And there is a part of us that wants those who have hurt us to hurt in the same way. Or, even more so, we want them gone, to never exist. But it won't solve anything. We all know this. It won't remove the hurt. It won't heal the trauma. It will just give us a moment of elation at the revenge we've been handed, which will vanish, and be refilled with the sadness, the mistrust, the abject hatred. We want to discard them like so much detritus. But they're not. They're still human beings, and still have worth.
As I've posted about earlier, our family recently went through a difficult time, and it was because of what I believe were wrong-minded and myopic decisions made by a group of folks who I trusted. The whole thing hurt. And I don't want to forgive. But as I vacillate back and forth between grace and frustration, I also know that I don't want to miss what might be a greater thing if I forgive. If I close that door altogether, I might miss a chance for reconciliation, which could be far better than what I have now. I don't want to pray for those who have caused me pain. I don't want to love people who have a desire to see me hurt. But I can't conceive of any other way to foster some kind of environment where pain receives its full resolution if I don't. And I don't see any other path to repairing what might be wrong either in my life, or the lives of those who wrong us, if we don't seek that kind of reconciliation. I'll admit, depending on the day, I'm not sure if I'll choose forgiveness.
After all, the last thing anyone wants to hear when they have been wronged is that they can be a positive influence on the person that has wronged them. How is that my job, right? It can't possibly fall to me to help the person who injured me so deeply. I really do understand that. And this might be where some people won't sign on to what I'm writing here. But, in the arena of human behavior, we are all janitors in this respect: we are all here to clean up each other. I really believe it. I don't want to do it sometimes, just like I don't want to sweep up yet more pieces of candy, or mop a floor for the third time this week because some kid can't seep to stop spilling Gatorade under his desk. But, whatever you think about our existence, whatever religion or non-religion you espouse, I can't help but think that we might as well be about the business of helping each other limp to the finish line. Like being a janitor, sometimes for the greater good, we fix what we didn't break, we clean what we didn't sully, because that's our best practices for the situation at hand.
I showed this video at youth group a couple of times, and it always gets me. It gets me because it illustrates, I believe, the power of forgiveness and grace. I leave you with it (my apologies for the somewhat cheesy editing at the end).